Sonja Vitow


By the time we reach the old farm, Jack’s cousin Moonface already has the balloon fired up and ready to go for our getaway. I never met Moonface before but I’ve seen him around town, only I always call him Babyface in my head. When he sees us pull up he says hey to Jack and then pats him on the shoulder and nods his round face at me like maybe he’s seen me around town before too.

Right away, Jack gives Moonface one of the duffel bags from the bank and tells him to hurry up. I’ve never been this close to a hot-air balloon before and it’s a lot smaller than I pictured. It’s pretty though, there’s a big red star in the middle and the outside is mostly yellow and grungy. It’s always hard to keep yellow clean. The giant flame shooting from under the balloon is so big and alive that it makes noise.

I ask Jack if he’s sure he knows what he’s doing, and he says, “Oh yeah babe, me and Moonface watched our uncle do this loads of times when we were kids,” and points and tells me the names of all the parts: the propane tank and the burner and the valve and the gores. He seems to know what he’s talking about and the sun is almost gone so I tell him OK and swing my purse and one of the duffel bags over the side of the big basket and Jack gives me the knee and I swing myself inside, too. He says to catch and then throws the other two sacks up at me. One of them is the one with the hundreds and the fifties, I know because I can see some Ben Franklins peeking up at me through their spectacles when I pull at the zipper.

The basket is only about big enough for me and Jack to sit down in, and for some reason that makes me feel safer. It’s even a little bit comfortable, what with the duffel bags for cushions. Moonface releases the long ropes that are holding us back, and waves as he gets smaller and smaller. Between the rush of air and the flame I can’t hear anything at all. Soon I can only make out that perfect pale circle of a face and I really understand his nickname. I say, “I used to call him Babyface,” and Jack laughs kind of mean.

As we get higher, I remind myself that this makes the most sense. A car is too easy to spot and there are only so many roads you can go down before the cops will find you. When Jack first explained his idea, I said he was crazy, we’d be better off making our getaway in a boat. I told Jack I’m afraid of heights, and he told me he’s afraid of the ocean.

“All that open water,” he said. “Besides, it would take too much time in the car to drive to the coast from here.” We’d have to go east through Philly, which he explained could be dangerous.

Jack’s uncle had a bunch of guns in the old barn and Moonface said he’d help out as long as he got a cut.  We got the duffel bags and ski masks at the Green Dragon Flea Market over in Ephrata. Jack said we had to pack light but we’d be able to buy whatever we needed in Ohio anyway. After all that was figured out, the only trouble was waiting for a really windy day to come along for the big showdown at the bank.

Jack and I are both staring back the way we came when we see blue and red lights flashing down low, and I tell him I hear sirens. I think about Moonface at the farm with the loaded duffel. Jack says it’s my imagination because there’s no way you’d be able to hear a cop car from up here.  Plus, Moonface is probably already at the bar spending his share. Jack has to yell over the propane burner. After a minute he says, “He knew what he was getting himself into.”

Pretty soon we don’t see any more flashing lights, and he says, “Cheer up, you’re gonna like Ohio,” and starts making me a bunch of promises about our new life, and all the things we’ll do with the money.

I say, “Are you sure we’re going west? I think Harrisburg is that way,” and point. Jack waves his hand at me and says to quit worrying about everything because I’m giving him a headache. I want to ask him who’s meeting us in Ohio to help tether the balloon, but I keep it to myself. Then he digs into his pocket and finds a white lighter and three joints sort of crumpled and mashed together. He pulls one apart from the others, kneels down and sparks it up. Then he exhales a thick white cloud while he says, “This is a good altitude,” like a real professional, and stands up to shut the propane valve. Then it quiets down and we’re just floating.

He passes me the joint, and before I take it I ask him if it’s dangerous to smoke in the balloon. He says, “Not if we stay low,” and sinks down next to me. I tell him we should have rolled it in one of the twenties, and he laughs. The smoke hangs around in the basket for a while after we’re done.  The pot makes me spacey, and I keep suddenly remembering where I am, not that I forgot, but just that I wasn’t really thinking about it.  Jack starts singing Blitzkrieg Bop at the top of his lungs, and then every other Ramones song he knows because he can do a decent job singing like them with a fake British accent. I join in and we take turns, first I am DeeDee and he is Joey and then he is DeeDee and I am Joey and Jack is also Johnny because he can do a mean air guitar.

When we run out of songs, Jack lights another joint and hits it twice before handing it over, so I hit it twice too. I get brave and peek over the basket, but I can feel too much rushing under the balloon and all the trees are just one long bristly blur, so I sit back. It’s not even that dark out because the moon is so bright, you can see everything. When I look at the moon I feel kind of homesick. My fingers get so cold I can barely move them and I think about how stupid it was that I forgot gloves. Jack says he would count our money if the wind wasn’t so strong, but he’s worried all the loot will blow away if he unzips the bags.

After a while I notice the sky getting brighter. I push myself up over the basket and I can see a whole city of glittering lights spread out in the distance. I start to feel a little bit panicky. I say, “I think this is wrong, this is wrong, I think that’s Philadelphia. I think we went east instead of west.” Jack points out that I’ve never been to Philadelphia and he has, and that’s Pittsburgh right there, and tells me the names of all the buildings, the Steel Tower and the Bell Telephone building. He seems to know what he’s talking about and I get to feeling kind of sleepy so I tell him OK.

“See, I told you I knew what I was doing,” he says, and sparks up the last joint. I nestle down under his arm, and we pass it back and forth slowly. Jack tries to blow smoke rings, but each time he gets close, the wind pulls the circles apart and the smoke scatters. When we finish, Jack throws the butt over the side of the basket, and I wonder for a while about where it could end up.

I ask Jack how long we’ve been floating around. I guess a couple of hours, not too much more because it’s still dark out. Jack guesses five hours give or take, maybe six. When we don’t talk, there are no other sounds and the quietness stretches out and fills the whole sky. Jack closes his eyes and starts to snore after a while. The air is dry and smells thick, like salt. My leg falls asleep so I stand up to shake it around a little bit, and I realize all of a sudden how dark it is all around us. The lights on the shore are getting dimmer and dimmer in the distance.

I say, “I’m hungry.”

Jack opens one eye and says, “I have something you can eat,” and shakes the metal clip around on his belt so it rattles.

I say, “Not now, I’m too high,” and we both have a good laugh about that, the dark waves of the Atlantic clipping around underneath us, cheering us on.

Sonja Vitow is a Boston-based high school language teacher, sarcasm aficionado, and co-editor of The Knicknackery. Some of her work can be found in Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, and Carve Magazine, and is forthcoming from the Harvard Review. In her free time, she organizes a highly competitive Words With Friends league that she takes too seriously. She can be found at